Exclusive: Downtown Beaufort named SC Cultural District

A mermaid from Beaufort's past public art project is displayed in the green space along Broad Street.
A mermaid from Beaufort's past public art project is displayed in the green space along Broad Street. The Island Packet

In a lot of ways, it was a no-brainer.

That the City of Beaufort -- with more than a dozen art galleries, numerous historical sites, a performing arts venue and a thriving arts community -- should have an official cultural district.

And now it does.

The city's downtown area has been named as an official South Carolina Cultural District by the S.C. Arts Commission, city and community leaders announced on Thursday.

The area stretches roughly from Bay Street to Boundary Street and East Street to Bladen Street, both Mayor Billy Keyserling and Bonnie Hargrove explained on Thursday.

The two headed the steering committee composed of a handful of arts and community leaders who worked on the city's application for the designation -- a process that started in the first quarter of 2015.

To qualify, districts generally include such things as galleries, live-performance venues, theaters, artist studios, museums and public art, according to the commission's website.

But a cultural district may also have businesses such as restaurants, banks or parks that frequently make their spaces available to the arts or create opportunities for the public to encounter art.

Either way, for Beaufort, it was almost a cinch.

"We've got a lot of infrastructure (for that) here," said Mayor Billy Keyserling on Thursday.

In fact, as the group went through the application process, which included identifying the area and inventorying what its "cultural assets" might be, leaders were impressed by just how much is actually jammed into the roughly 11- by 11-block district.

"It was very impressive what all we had here," said Hargrove, who also serves as director for the University of South Carolina Beaufort's Center for the Arts.

What Beaufort has, Hargrove detailed, is more than 50 cultural assets such as galleries, museums, historic markers and similar sites or properties in a walkable area -- another "key characteristic" of a cultural district.

Hargrove said it was important for the university to be involved in the process and in the district since the center often brings both local and nationally touring theatrical performances as well as gallery shows to the area.

In fact, the center will, in some ways, serve as an anchor to the district's northeast quadrant, in much the same way a major retailer anchors a shopping center.

The Henry C. Chambers Waterfront Park, which plays host to the Beaufort Shrimp Festival and the Beaufort Water Festival as well as numerous other outdoor events, anchors the south side of the district, while historic homes and museums such as the new Santa Elena Interpretive Center anchor both its east and west sides.

What the designation will mean for Beaufort is not only increased tourism but a healthy economy overall, both Hargrove and Keyserling said.

"We consider arts and culture part of a healthy hometown and part of economic development," Keyserling said.

It will also mean the potential for greater collaboration among those in the district, he added.

"I think it will challenge the constituent members to work more collaboratively to the benefit of all," he said. "You've probably got more bricks and mortar around arts and culture in the City of Beaufort per capita than most small cities. So what we want to do is build on what we have."

In turn, Beaufort will be able to take advantage of potential networking opportunities with other cultural districts from around the state as it becomes South Carolina's fifth such district, officials with the S.C. Arts Commission said on Thursday.

The relatively new program has been looking for ways of networking not only on a state level but with other states across the country with similar programs, said the commission's county coordinator Rusty Sox.

In addition, the commission has "a small grant fund that communities can tap," he said. "So it would assist them with marketing materials or such things as identity branding for the local district."

If there is a downside to word getting out about Beaufort's cultural offerings or more visitors coming to the area, Keyserling doesn't see one.

"When Beaufort was recently named as one of the '52 Places to Go in 2016' (by The New York Times), people asked me what this would do to us," he said.

Keyserling said he told them they were fortunate to have people who want to come to Beaufort -- whether to visit or stay longer.

"If you make Beaufort the best place to live, it will be an extremely desirable place for people to want to visit," he added. "So let's build the most authentic place not just for visitors but for people who want to live here as well."